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At the sign of the cross, a city in transition

The big blue cross on the hill, lighted at night and almost impossible to ignore, has always been the image that lingered in my mind after leaving Waterbury. It's a place that's hard to miss traveling on Interstate 84 because the highway runs practically through the city center.

Recently I spent the better part of a day exploring and found that the fifth largest city in Connecticut, with a population of slightly more than 100,000 , has more to offer than meets the passing eye.

From the highway, several large churches anchor the cityscape, signs of the deeply rooted Roman Catholicism here. It didn't take a lot of roaming to find people with childhood memories of working-class pride mixed with an immigrant consciousness closely tied to church and family.

Waterbury went into decline with the demise of the brass industry that had underwritten its hard-won prosperity into the 1970s. It has suffered its share of corrupt politicians; John Rowland , the former governor who resigned in a corruption scandal in 2004 , is a Waterbury native. And it has confronted the twin plagues of drug abuse and gun violence to the point that it became one of the nation's poorest urban areas in one of its wealthiest states.

But these days, Waterbury is undergoing some revitalizing and the downtown area is making a run at recapturing an energy that has been missing for more than a generation. ``We are not a sleepy town," said Ede Reynolds, who moved here 35 years ago when she married a native. She and her husband, Dan Gaeta, own and operate The John Bale Book Co. in the city center.

Reynolds proudly trumpets advances in making the downtown safe and she helps promote efforts to bring people back into the city. That would include the Halloween extravaganza dubbed ``Mardi Gross" that merchants initiated two years ago during which they distribute 18,000 candies to more than 4,000 trick-or-treaters.

When our discussion -- held over a chicken salad sandwich followed by a to-die-for slice of chocolate cake in the bookstore's cafe -- turned to the giant cross near the highway, a bemused expression spread across Reynolds's face.

The cross is the centerpiece of an eerie relic of roadside Americana dubbed Holy Land by John Baptist Greco, a pillar of the community who built and bankrolled the theme park in the 1950s.

I had started my day's wanderings there, finding my way up the hill, driving through a dilapidated residential neighborhood of single and multifamily dwellings .

Once you reach Holy Land, you find a replica of Jerusalem and other biblical sites built in miniature out of plywood, aluminum sheeting, ferro-cement , and cheap porcelain. There is a strangeness about the place that comes from seeing a jumble of icons that the caretakers are not quite ready to abandon, but at the same time are unable to maintain.

At one time, tens of thousands of people stopped to tour Holy Land each year. But since Greco's death 20 years ago, the place has been in decline and the displays have suffered from the elements and vandalism. It s future is a topic of debate throughout the city. Near the top of Pine Hill is the large cross, made of angle iron and Plexiglas . A close-up look reveals it has been defaced with grafitti.

But from the foot of the cross , you have a panoramic view of Waterbury and some of the architecture the city is known for. Saint Anne's Church, built by French- Canadian immigrants in the early 1900s, is a landmark. Its twin granite spires and green copper dome are visible from the highway and the church is being renovated despite its dwindling congregation. Recently dedicated as a `` shrine to motherhood," it is well worth a visit.

Sister John Mary Sullivan, an Arizona native, helps care for the church and is happy to explain the finer points of the ``feminine Gothic," style in which it was built.

The architectural heritage of Waterbury extends to municipal and commercial buildings . The Cass Gilbert District features a City Hall and attendant structures designed by the architect whose achievements include several state capitols and the Supreme Court Building in Washington .

Across the street from the city's signature piece of municipal art, a brass horse on The Green, I stopped into the Higher Calling Ministry , a storefront church where I met David Watson, the Jamaican-born pastor. He grew up in the city and is raising his four children in the south end near Holy Land. He loves Waterbury even though he can remember when African- Americans were consigned to the Walnut Street area of the north end and were wary of venturing downtown.

Near The Green on East Main Street and across from the Waterbury campus of the University of Connecticut is the Palace Theater, a vaudeville house built in 1922 and among the largest theaters in New England. Reputed to be one of Bruce Springsteen's favorite venues, it went dark in 1987 . Two years ago a $30 million renovation put the Palace at the center of efforts to revitalize Waterbury.

Other landmarks include the Howland-Hughes Building, which housed the first department store in Connecticut, which opened in 1890. It was the last holdout when large downtown stores closed their doors about a century later. But thanks to family member Hank Paine, this one reinvented itself as The Connecticut Store, which carries items produced only in the Nutmeg State.

Paine waxes poetic about Waterbury industry. Get him on the subject and he'll tell you about the Waterbury Button Co. , which has been in business for almost 200 years and is still going strong.

Paine has personal memories of Holy Land, which he agrees holds a certain ``post- apocalyptic charm" today. He recalled sitting up on the hill with friends and watching the malls being built that put his family's department stores out of business. Today, he noted, those same malls are struggling because of the influx of big-box stores. And so it goes.

Waterbury, one of the region's resilient medium-sized cities, is busy reinventing itself -- again. And that cross on the hill? Everyone I spoke with assured me that whatever happens to the rest of Holy Land, the cross will remain.

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